The Catalog as History

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Often a rare book and ephemera catalog can be as valuable as a history textbook. Granted many of the descriptions of artifacts for sale are culled from existing histories; although just as many are the result of original research. The extensive series of Ex Libris catalogs written by Arthur Cohen and produced by Elaine Lustig Cohen are filled with original sources that have provided some design historians – myself included – with primary source accounts and data.

With the overwhelming popularity and distinct economy of antiquarian book dealing online, the traditional catalog is becoming ever rarer. Yet booksellers (I hope) will not give in to digital pressures so easily. Many of the principal dealers, who focus on preserving and selling the documents of design, continue to publish moderately ambitious catalogs.

Elaine Lustig Cohen recently sent me Lorne Bair’s Catalog 13: Rare Books, Manuscripts, Art & Ephemera focused entirely on political artifacts from the teens through the 60s. In addition to runs of the magazines Liberator (1918-1924), the socialist periodical that followed the defunct Masses, and Labor Defender (1930-1932), “the most underappreciated of the American radical magazines,” are autographs by Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton in REDS) scheduling an “assignation” in Greenwich Village, “The Goose Step: A Study of American Education” by Upton Sinclair, and Victor Keppler’s iconic “home front poster” from WWII (“Wanted for Murder”), encouraging soldiers wives to maintain confidentiality regarding their husbands’ whereabouts – you never know who is listening.

More catalogs are appearing online, but the permanency of the printed document (I have a dozen boxes of them), while taking up physical space, are well worth the long-term investment. (Another great source of art and design rare book catalogs is Ars Libri.)

(Check out City of Deco in yesterday’s Nightly Daily Heller.)

Catalog as History, Liberator
Catalog as History, Labor Defender
Catalog as History, Lorne Bair

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